The screen populates itself with a myriad of fantastical colours, culminating in a shimmering, cityscape backdrop. A woman, resolve tested and chin lowered, stands before a now-lifeless man, slumped against a stone-like fixture; an energised sabre stands triumphantly, having been plunged into the nameless figure. It flickers, and then speaks, having somehow absorbed the man’s thoughts and conscience. In a feat of Excalibur-like proportion the woman recovers the weapon and then heeds the advice that the sabre imparts her with; redemption must be had, wrongs must be put right – the world must be salvaged. Welcome to Transistor.
Back in 2011, developer Supergiant Games sent gaming critics into a spin with its maiden release, Bastion; a charming, narrative-driven tale with an acute focus on emotional depth and graphical nuance. Fast forward some three years and a protracted development later and its second game has come to fruition, Transistor – a science fiction-based offering, brimming with combative refinement and graphical lustre. Straight off the bat it becomes readily apparent that the game’s world, the city of Cloudbank, is immaculately conceived – a sumptuous mesh of saturated colour and hue. Transistor’s pseudo-isometric viewpoint allows the art style to flourish, and you’ll soon be not only taking in the vibrant surroundings but interacting with it, too.
Within nearly every section of the game lies a government-run OVC terminal which allows you to communicate with the game’s antagonists as well as vote on a whole manner of seemingly innocuous issues, ranging from weather to food preferences. All of the interactivity is tightly interwoven with the DualShock 4’s projection of the Transistor’s commandeered voice and a number of other little intricacies, such a dedicated ‘hum’ button for our mute protagonist and the ability to inspect a whole manner of items within Cloudbank, leading to a better understanding of the game’s narrative. In line with that, Transistor’s story certainly becomes one of the most championed aspects on show as players are dropped straight in with little-to-no understanding as to what has happened or why the protagonist cannot speak. Through a series of clever mechanics and stylish cut-scenes, it emerges that a botched assassination has occurred, leading to the death of the man from the beginning; the Camerata, a fiendish group with control over a malicious line of robots named the Process, carried out the attempt and are now hell bent on attaining the Transistor once more for undoubtedly pernicious purposes.
While Transistor’s lush, visual sheen provides an extremely warranted striking point of discussion initially it’s the game’s intuitive gameplay mechanics that perhaps deserve the highest of praise. Combining real-time movement with a more considered turn-based system, Transistor effortlessly transcends the traditional barriers erected by monotonous gameplay staples and instead defiantly delivers a system that’s as well-rounded and dynamic as the player themselves can make. The beauty of the combat mechanic lies within its customizability; Red, our aptly-named, mute protagonist (who is ironically a famous singer in Cloudbank) is afforded three ‘active’ slots, with which three of a total of sixteen functions – each with their own powers, effects, and percentage-based outcomes – can be activated. When your three chosen functions occupy the three active slots, you can then add a further two functions to each, creating a threefold chain of attack that’s dependent on the combination you’ve created. The sheer amount of mixtures and sequences that can be conjured up means that the gameplay remains a refreshing treat throughout the entire five-hour long story. Players also have the opportunity to test their skills and functional concoctions in a serene, beach-like practice arena which crops up at different sections of the story – it also boosts a number of tests, ranging from speed to planning. These challenges present more than just a passing difficulty, and you’ll soon find yourself replaying the same one over and over just to perfect the best route to success.
Once your slots are assigned to one-button commands the customized experience ascends to a further level by allowing you to approach the game’s enemies in real-time by tapping your newly-created attacks in a furious foray of expression, or by activating a turn-based system with a swift push of R2. For the latter, players can map out their pathways of attack and execute an oftentimes stunning series of moves, devastating the numerous foes unlucky enough to be standing in the general vicinity of the strike. Both offensive avenues expend part of an energy gauge that’s placed atop of the screen, and the amount of energy dictates what series of attacks Red can produce; there’s also a momentary period of downtime necessary to recuperate the gauge, within which you’ll find yourself cowering and dodging in the face of increasingly hostile enemy attacks. Additionally – as if the gameplay wasn’t malleable enough – players can modify aspects of the difficulty by applying as many as ten ‘limiters’, which attempt to hinder your advancement in several creative means, whilst at the same time granting a further percentage of experience used for levelling up after seeing off whatever section of enemies.
Such is Transistor’s combative depth, a single playthrough simply isn’t large enough to cater for all the variants possible within the gameplay mechanics. Luckily developer Supergiant Games has prepared for such an eventuality by creating a ‘recursion mode’, which is unlocked upon completion of the game for the first time. The mode effectively acts as ‘New Game+’, allowing players to retain all their functions and to continue levelling up in order to unlock the rest of what the game has to offer; enemy strength is altered accordingly, of course, as is their patterns, meaning that no single playthrough will ever quite be the same. The one drawback to a continual playthrough is perhaps the slight lack of enemy variation at certain periods of the game – thankfully the dynamic gameplay never allows the level of enjoyment to substantially drop but there’s certainly something to be said for more advanced enemies to mirror the malleable combat.
Just like that feeling of utter satisfaction when a young, budding artist unequivocally proves that their first song wasn’t a mere one-in-a-million fluke by releasing a second to equal triumph, Supergiant games has struck gold once again with its latest prismatic sci-fi title, combining an incredibly refreshing gameplay system with a lush, stimulating world that manages to cleverly nestle itself between that of a utopia and dystopia. The enticing narrative, interlaced with gripping story-mechanics, all culminating in a fittingly poignant finale make Transistor a game that deserves to find its home in as many PlayStation 4’s as possible.